Steve Ben Israel
Excerpt from the Lower East Side Biography Project

Steve Zehentner: Producer, Director of Photography

Steve Ben Israel, a legendary thespian, veteran of the groundbreaking Living Theatre troupe, and pioneer of what he called “performance life” (as opposed to performance art).

Born to a working-class Russian-Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn, Israel gravitated to the Greenwich Village beatnik scene in the 1950s. He first acted in the Living Theatre’s controversial 1963 production “The Brig,” which chillingly depicted brutal conditions in a Marine Corps prison — and resulted in the theater being shut down, ostensibly over a tax issue. The troupe afterward left New York for Europe, spending several years on the road. Their ethic of breaking down the barrier between performers and audience reached its pinnacle in the 1968 production “Paradise Now” — often performed naked and high on acid. Israel frequently drove the troupe from city to city.

A 1971 tour of Brazil — then under a right-wing military dictatorship — was cut short when troupe members were arrested on a trumped-up marijuana charge and imprisoned. Israel just barely managed to escape the country, and back in New York worked to get his fellow performers released. The experience resulted the Living Theatre’s most harrowing work, “Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism,” a statement on human-rights abuses, then widespread under Latin America’s military regimes.

In the late ’70s, Israel moved from acting to his own unique take on stand-up comedy — politically themed, stream-of-consciousness, incorporating nonverbal sound effects, and (usually) cannabis-fueled. Under such Zen-like paradoxical names as “Nostalgia for the Future,” “Séances to Contact the Living” and “Nonviolent Executions,” Israel offered humanistic observations on war, peace and life in New York City, all through his characteristic anarchist-pacifist lens.

In 2007, the revived Living Theatre unveiled a new production of “The Brig” for the age of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, and Israel was brought in as ensemble director, work for which he won an Obie Award. - biography excerpt from The Villager

The Steve Ben Israel Biography was produced by The Lower East Side Biography Project and was edited and directed by Ema Ryan-Yamazaki in collaboration with Penny Arcade and Steve Zehentner. Steve Zehentner: Producer, Director of Photography, Editor. Penny Arcade: Producer, Interviewer. Second Camera: Eric Wallach, Keith Geller. Associate Producers: Dean Lance, Rick Jungers

The Lower East Side Biography Project was created in 1999 by performance artist Penny Arcade and video producer Steve Zehentner as an ongoing biography series and oral history archive. The LES Bio Project’s biographies and archive work to ensure that future generations have access to the mad souls of invention and rebellion that built the Lower East Side’s international reputation as an incubator for authenticity and iconoclasm in art, culture and politics.

The project seeks to stem the tide of cultural amnesia by bridging the cultural gap between long time residents and newcomers to the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of New York’s Lower East Side. To this end, the LES Bio Project has a community-media training component where young filmmakers are trained in production and post-production technologies and then become shepherds of an individual oral history that they edit into a 28-minute biography. Since its inception, the LES Bio Project has trained over forty individuals, completed over sixty 28-minute programs, and videotaped dozens more interviews and live events.

The completed biographies cablecast and stream live every Monday at 11 p.m EST, in Manhattan on Time Warner 34, RCN 82, FIOS 33, and live stream on Manhattan Neighborhood Network Community Channel One.

View the current cablecast and livestream schedule on the project's Facebook page.